We have defined our terms in parts one & two of this series of articles. Going strictly by the definitions, sects and denominations are two different things. However, there is sufficient overlap in the two ideas that we are justified in concluding that whether a group divides over matters of doctrine or chooses a name to call itself by, a denomination is the result. Therefore there are two ways to become a denomination; a religious group becomes a denomination when:
- They choose a name to identify themselves with. This is true even if that "name" is found in the Bible.
- They have the attitude that they must separate themselves from, and refuse fellowship with, all other Christians with whom they disagree.
Being guilty of either of these practices will produce a denomination and it usually happens something like this. A disagreement arises between brethren and they end up separating from each other. It doesn't really matter what it is about, but for the sake of example lets say it is a disagreement over whether or not to have Bible classes. Such a separation forms a new sect (denomination). These brethren aren't sectarian because there is disagreement over the Bible class issue. They are sectarian because of their attitude towards brethren with whom they disagree. This attitude stems from the conviction that only those who believe as they do are sound and faithful. This attitude is sectarian or denominational. In the course of time, it is quite possible that one or both of these groups will choose a name which differentiates them from others who don't believe as they do (it is also probable that congregational autonomy will be subtly undermined). Either by name or by attitude their descent into denominationalism is complete. Please note that these definitions demand no kind of cooperation amongst congregations. A congregation can be completely autonomous and disconnected from every other religious group and still be a denomination. However, congregational cooperation is something that most denominations engage in almost without exception.
There are always disagreements between brethren but God expects us to be able to work them out. We should approach such issues with great patience, humility and love and resolve to study out the issues even if the studying process takes years. If Christians are part of the family of God, shouldn't we be able to live together and work out our differences? Members of a household (father, mother, children, etc) usually don't agree with each other on any number of topics. But everyone recognizes how shameful and sinful it is if that family breaks up rather than resolving their disputes. Why should the expectations for congregations be any different? Do we not teach our young people who are about to be married that marriage is for life and that divorce should not be a word in their vocabulary? Why then do Christians not adopt that same outlook when they join themselves to the family of God at some specific congregation? Our attitude should be, "Separation is not an option. Whatever issue arises, we will truly communicate with each other, study with each other and work out the problems no matter how long it takes just as God intended". Anything less than this involves sin.
God never intended such factionalism to consume His church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 11:17-18). I don't think many people set out to be denominational. It happens when we allow our pride and emotions to get out of control and fail to look to the Scriptures for guidance on how to treat each other. I don't think many of us in the Churches of Christ even realize that we are guilty of denominationalism. How could we realize it when we are taught continually that we are not denominational but that the rest of the religious world is? Judging from my own prior personal beliefs and my observations of others, there aren't many of us in the Churches of Christ that even know what a denomination is. We are pretty good at pointing out why other groups are a denomination but are completely unable to see it among our own ranks.
Ever wonder why the Church of Christ doesn't have the appeal to our religious neighbors that it once had? Perhaps it is because they know what we are in denial about - the Church of Christ is just another denomination. After all, if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, walks like a duck and is seen in the company of other ducks, it is probably a duck! What else should they conclude? Why would they leave their denomination to join another one? When we truly abandon our denominational ways, then we'll have something different to offer them.
If we are honest, we are forced to conclude that the Church of Christ is a denomination. We are a denomination because we have selected a name to identify us: the Church of Christ. Even though it is a descriptive "name" found in the Bible we are denominated because we use it to the exclusion of all other descriptive phrases found in the New Testament. We are a denomination because we are sectarian in attitude and practice and what is more we don't see anything wrong with our factionalism. In fact we even encourage it by insisting and pressuring each other to dis-fellowship any with whom we disagree.
I do not want to be a member of a denomination. I want to be just a Christian and be a part of the church you can read about in the Bible. That church didn't go by just one name. Christians with a non-denominational disposition will use all of the descriptive phrases found in the New Testament to describe that church. Larry McKee probably said it best when he said, "The name on a sign doesn't matter unless you want it to identify the sect you are a part of. If that's what it does then it identifies the denomination that meets there"! I can also choose to reject sectarianism. I will accept those with whom I disagree as fellow workers in the Lord's kingdom. As long as we agree on the work that we are doing together, we can be in partnership even though we don't agree on every point of doctrine.